Nats exercising caution with Scherzer

Right-hander will face hitters for second time Sunday

Nats exercising caution with Scherzer

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Max Scherzer will throw another session of live batting practice on Sunday, which will be his second time facing hitters this spring. He tossed about 44 pitches and simulated two innings on Tuesday in the same setting, and the Nationals determined they wanted to maintain the same environment for his next outing.

"As long as he faces hitters, it really doesn't matter what the format is," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said after Thursday's 2-2 tie with the Marlins.

Baker said Scherzer, who is still feeling the effects of a stress fracture in his right ring finger, could throw about three innings, depending on his pitch count. Scherzer felt fatigued after resting between innings in his previous outing, so despite his best efforts to maintain his throwing program, he still is a bit behind in building up his endurance.

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Most Nationals starters have had at least two Grapefruit League outings, and they are beginning their third turns through the rotation Friday. The team has not said how many minimum Spring Training outings Scherzer would need before he starts the regular season. With each passing day, the likelihood that he will be ready to start Opening Day decreases.

"We're preparing for that, but it's hard to count Max out," Baker said. "It depends how he progresses the next few weeks, but if not, then we got a couple other candidates that are pretty good, too. We're glad that he's made the progress that he's made."

Perhaps the leading candidate to replace Scherzer in the rotation is right-hander A.J. Cole, who started Thursday's game. In his most impressive performance this spring, Cole blanked the Marlins for four innings, allowing no hits with one walk and two strikeouts. Cole has been up and down in his brief Major League experience, which has amounted to just nine starts over the past two years, but he is the most proven starter behind the Nats' rotation on the roster.

"I do feel a lot stronger here in Spring Training," said Cole, who bulked up during the offseason. "I haven't felt this good since I started playing in Spring Training."

Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.